Market uneasy after cantaloupe outbreak

10/06/2011 01:11:00 PM
Chris Koger

The number of people whose deaths are linked to Colorado cantaloupes contaminated with listeria continues to rise, and shippers and others in the produce industry report severe aftershocks in markets.

But U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows shipments of cantaloupes have not slowed, and prices have not dropped significantly or, in some cases, at all.

Through Oct. 4, the outbreak had not affected movement of cantaloupes nationwide.

From Sept. 25 to Oct. 1, 49.3 million pounds of cantaloupes were shipped in the U.S., comparable to last year at the same time.

For the week ending Sept. 24, shipments were comparable both to the week ending Oct. 1 and to the same week the year before.

F.o.b. prices were slightly lower than the year before the week of Oct. 4. The USDA reported prices of $6-7.50 for 1/2 cartons of cantaloupes 9-12 from Arizona, down from $7-9 last year at the same time.

Prices in the weeks since the recall fell from a peak of $8.50 Sept. 20. A similar peak was recorded about the same time in 2010. In the week following the recall, cantaloupe prices actually rose from $7-7.50 to $8-8.50.

At retail, meanwhile, cantaloupe ad prices actually rose in the week ending Sept. 30. The average ad price for a whole melon was $2.21, up from $2.06 the week before and $1.97 the year before, according to the USDA.

“I haven’t heard of anything that has affected sales at all,” said Craig Wilson, vice president of quality assurance and food safety for Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco Wholesale Corp., which did not receive any melons from Jensen Farms.

The fallout from the Jensen Farms outbreak hasn’t been as bad as other outbreaks, said Trevor Suslow, an extension specialist with the University of California-Davis.

“There’s certainly an economic impact, but I’ve heard from shippers that this isn’t quite as bad they thought it would be,” he said. “This is a horrific set of circumstances, with a high death rate, but in the grand scale, these are very isolated incidents.”

As far as the outbreak’s effects on markets, Suslow said it’s hard to separate the outbreak itself from other factors that could be influencing price.

But cantaloupe shippers like Steve Patricio, president of Westside Produce, Firebaugh, Calif., say the outbreak has had a serious effect on cantaloupe markets, thanks in large part to the media’s overreaction.

“Nearly a month after potentially contaminated melons were withdrawn from commerce, the media is generating headlines and creating unprecedented hysteria about the safety of cantaloupes,” Patricio said. “Not only is this doing nothing to protect public health, but it’s severely damaging California and other cantaloupe growing areas that have been the leading food safety activists for the last 20 years.”

Thousands of harvest workers and support personnel are seeing their season cut short by three weeks because of the outbreak, Patricio said.

“Three weeks may not sound long to a year-round employee, but to someone who feeds their family by working seven days a week for the 15-week season, it’s a 20% pay cut.”

Bill Bishop, chairman of Willard Bishop LLC, Barrington, Ill., said that despite signs in his local Jewel store making clear that the retailer’s cantaloupes did not come from Jensen Farms, fruit was not moving.

In some outbreaks, it’s relatively easy to contain the damage, Bishop said.

The Jensen Farms outbreak, however, is one that has worked on the public imagination in a way that is stubbornly impervious to facts.

“It’s having a crushing effect,” he said. “I wish I knew how to pull out of a tailspin like this, but I just don’t see it.”



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Steven Newman    
Fort Collins, Colorado  |  October, 06, 2011 at 01:35 PM

Greetings and thanks for this article. We are all doing our best and trying to maintain factual information to our puclic. For those looking for more information on our Colorado situation and some tools to use when addressing the produce industry, please follow these links: http://www.news.colostate.edu/assets-listeria.aspx http://www.news.colostate.edu/Release/5919 Steven Newman Greenhouse Crops Extension Specialist and Professor of Floriculture

rodney    
mendota, california  |  October, 06, 2011 at 02:43 PM

this story goes to show that the goverment have no clue what is going on in the real world, the dept of ag., we are a major cantaloupe shiiper and our business is off by 80 per cent. since the story continues to scare people,i understand why people are concerned but use some common sense and know where your fresh produce is coming from. ask who ever you are buying from where the melons came from.. if they are from california, you are safe.

Paul Ryan    
HUNTSPOINT  |  October, 06, 2011 at 03:20 PM

New York Market has come to a halt on cantaloupe movement at wholesale /retail /and food service levels

kerry g    
pennsylvania  |  October, 06, 2011 at 03:59 PM

I threw six cases in the dumpster after sitting on them 2 weeks with very little interest even at a sale price.sad

TERRY    
PENNSYLVANIA  |  October, 07, 2011 at 09:07 AM

The media begins the broadcast with something like this. Mother of 3 dies trying to feed her family the right foods or stay tuned to find out how you can SAVE your family from illness caused by eating cantaloupes. Makes it tough to convince the public that they're safe no matter where they're from.

Milas Russell, Jr.    
Yuma, AZ  |  October, 07, 2011 at 10:27 AM

All of us in the melon industry are sadened by the tragic cantaloupe contamination events. No grower, packer or shipper wants their product to cause sickness nor deaths. As the issue unfolded most in the CA and AZ melon industry were comfortable the CDC and major media had identified the contamination and determined it was isolated to Colorado thereby consumers would simply steer away from Rocky Ford Cantaloupes. Then news of the additional deaths beyond the peanut contaminaiton hit the news waves on September 24th and consumers were informed that if they could not determine where the melons were from to discard them or do not purchase them. At that point the sales of melons dropped significantly. The damage is done, tragically people died, others are still ill and the melon industry's reputation is damaged. Our business' are now suffering greatly due to consumers hesitation to purchase any melons, much less cantaloupes. We in the melon industry are going to have to pull together to prove to consumers we have a healthy and safe product to eat! Please join me in addressing this important issue. Support the California Melon Research Board or California Cantaloupe Advisory Board in their efforts to provide safe growing, harvesting and shipping practices to the entire melon industry.

Brian Sanger    
valentime NE  |  October, 10, 2011 at 04:14 PM

In north-central Nebraska, sales are steady, prices only slightly up, ad prices unchanged.

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